Phi Beta Cons

Re: Liberal Arts and their Usefulness

It’s worth pointing out that most of the top schools don’t offer majors in Business or Journalism or anything overtly practical. I’m not suggesting one can build a general education out of the academy’s lacunae, and I never thought I would be praising the smug obstinance of the Ivory Tower, but this recalcitrance is something of a promising foundation. The refuge for people who have wanted to flee to “the practical” in these circumstances has increasingly become the social sciences, and especially things like “International Relations.” But often the practical-sounding doesn’t end up being so practical in the job hunt.
It’s often said that the most employable major at the top 20 schools is Classics. I believe it: Not only is having such a diploma an attention-getter in a time when, as Ferrall writes, employers realize the uselessness of most academia and the necessity of on-the-job training, but it certainly does differentiate an applicant in a world where, as George likes to point out, there are just way too many college graduates. Companies like Bain, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, etc. host recruiting events exclusively for Humanities students. I even remember an advertisement in the school paper from Lehman Brothers that boasted: “We put a poet in charge of our automated trading block.”
I do agree with Robert that 18-year-olds will have a hard time grasping the logic behind going into the Humanities as a career-booster, which is certainly not intuitive. But what they should be able to realize is that one college degree is much like another: Really, the only things that matter in the realm of employment are where your diploma is from; what your summer internships were; and, in a somewhat distant third place, your GPA.
If Swarthmore or Amherst decided tomorrow to become St John’s College (which has a curriculum so standardized that students can transfer in between the Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses without missing a beat), their graduates would be no worse off because of it. The thing holding them back, as I see it, is not so much student demand for “usefulness” as universities’ slavishness to their faculty’s discrete interests.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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